Shoulders hunched, frail and weary, the tall Commander-in-Chief prowls the hallways of the Executive Mansion like an omnipresent wraith, often sneaking up on unsuspecting staff as if he had materialized out of thin air. His alarmingly gaunt frame, a shell of his imposing former self, somehow musters up the strength to keep going. There’s a war to manage, and it cannot end until he’s able to send this house divided on the long and arduous road toward racial equality.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is one of the best movies I’ve seen about the running of a war. Just don’t call it a combat film: The Schindler’s List auteur disposes of battlefield carnage on the very first scene. In an all-encompassing long shot – vividly lensed, as is the rest of the film, by longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski – soldiers on both sides go through the motions of bloody warfare in the pouring rain, but they can barely bring themselves to stick their bayonets into their opponents with much conviction. These men, like the nation for which they are fighting, are tired. They’ve been decimating each other in the hundreds of thousands for nearly four years. Is there no end in sight?
It’s January of 1865, and our 16th President, played with an exhilarating mix of ardor and restraint by Daniel Day-Lewis, is fairly certain victory for the North is at hand. He is also aware that if he ends the Civil War before passing the Thirteenth Amendment, he would be turning back the clock on the abolition of slavery. What’s the leader of the free world to do? Welcome to the art of the possible, mutton chop-style. The bulk of Lincoln, which is adapted from a portion of Dorothy Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, unfolds in the halls of Congress and the staterooms of what Teddy Roosevelt would definitively baptize the White House, where men strategize, bargain and cajole. They talk, and then they talk some more, and you don’t want to miss a single line of dialogue. Spielberg is working from a dense, exquisitely verbose screenplay by Tony Kushner. Spirited policy discussions give the Angels in America playwright the opportunity to pen a succession of florid soliloquies that often make the film feel like the most intriguing period episode of The West Wing Aaron Sorkin never made.
Kushner takes pains to make this chapter of American history feel authentic, but it’s clear his mind is very much on our political present. When Lincoln says “we begin with equality,” you know the gifted wordsmith is referring to much more than the Thirteenth Amendment. (It’s no coincidence, for instance, that openly gay actor Stephen Spinella has been cast as staunch abolitionist Asa Vintner Litton.) And yet one of the triumphs of Lincoln is that it convincingly depicts how alien the interaction between African Americans and Caucasians must have felt like during this period. When Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), his wife Mary’s seamstress and confidante, ponder on how life would change after this piece of legislation is passed, they realize they’re heading into uncharted territory, and they look a little uneasy trying to grapple with the concept.
Spielberg wisely allows Kushner’s dialogue to do the heavy lifting, but that doesn’t mean Lincoln is devoid of visual flourishes. True, Spielberg wisely favors a muted palette for the most part, but some of his depiction of period detail bring to mind the work of Italian director Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice, The Leopard). The issue-driven tete-a-tetes, on the other hand, recall Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men, and there’s more than a passing resemblance to To Kill a Mockingbird in the climactic House of Representatives hearing that rewards the viewer’s patience with a stirring glimpse at civil-rights justice in action.
Lincoln aims high. It attempts to capture the birth of our contemporary political discourse, and how in many ways, some things have remained unchanged. It also dares to depict its central figure, not only as a strong leader and devoted family man, but as a ferocious political shark who is not above masterminding acts of bribery by disreputable folks to get the congressional votes he needs. Spielberg, to his credit, never allows the film to devolve into a dry civics lecture. This is one heady game of chess that never loses sight of the roiling emotions driving both sides of the aisle. It’s also a showcase for a sensational all-star cast that includes Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as her eldest son Robert, and a deliciously hammy Tommy Lee Jones as Republican statesman Thaddeus Stevens.
If Kushner’s literate screenplay is Lincoln‘s brain, Day-Lewis is its haunted soul. Disappearing almost entirely beneath astonishingly uncanny makeup, the There Will Be Blood star dives headfirst into the demanding task of breathing life into the venerated American icon, and his measured understatement, contrasted by his decision to adopt a raspy, high-pitched voice that might take some getting used to for some viewers, results in one of his most accomplished performances, one that transcends accusations of awards-bait grandstanding. Spielberg’s immersive history lesson, one of the best films of the year, rebuffs watered-down speechifying at every turn. He preserves the complexity of our nation’s tumultuous past and trusts that his audience will keep up with him.
If you’re in the mood for lighter, less traditional fare, you might want to check out this jam-packed movie weekend’s other character study, the disarmingly eccentric travelogue This Must Be the Place. The English language debut of Paolo Sorrentino (the Giulio Andreotti biopic Il Divo) wears its influences on its sleeve, and that’s initially off-putting. Sean Penn stars as aging American rocker Cheyenne, and the raven-haired semi-retired musician’s unruly mane and penchant for flamboyant makeup immediately recall The Cure vocalist Robert Smith. When he speaks, his whiny drawl screams Andy Warhol. And the cross-continental journey he undertakes suggests Paris, Texas as remade by Federico Fellini.
Cheyenne, you see, is stuck in a rut. Not when it comes to his marriage, mind you. He’s still able to bring Jane (Frances McDormand), his wife of many years, to orgasm with clockwork efficiency. But being holed up inside a huge mansion in Dublin, essentially living off his royalties for recording “depressed songs for depressed kids” decades ago, has brought on unwelcome ennui to his daily routine. Mary, the daughter he had with Rachel (Kerry Condon), a previous relationship, is no help. Having lunch with her a local mall, he chides her for not giving the gawky clerk clearly smitten with her a chance. They make small talk, but they also address the elephant in the room: Mary’s brother, whose absence has irrevocably affected Rachel’s sanity.
Then a phone call wakes Cheyenne up from his stupor. Back in New York, his estranged dad in on his deathbed. Off he goes to find some, um, closure? He arrives in the States too late to have that final conversation, but Mordecai Midler, a Nazi hunter played with gruff gusto by Judd Hirsch, informs him that his not-so-dearly departed father was very close to finding the concentration camp officer who made his life a living hell. And so Cheyenne embarks on the quest for the man who tormented and ridiculed the father who didn’t think too highly of his career choice. On the phone with Jane, Cheyenne assures her that he has tracked down Mary’s brother, and that he’s all right. Wait, what? Sorrentino’s messy narrative is short on clarity, but This Must Be the Place nevertheless breathes new life on this done-to-death genre. Penn’s fish-out-of-water befuddlement and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s expansive vistas once Cheyenne begins heading out west more than compensate for the undisciplined storytelling. Sorrentino has made a stream-of-consciousness road trip with intoxicating panache, a big-hearted shout out to the mascara-wearing nonconformist inside all of us.
This Must Be the Place opens Friday exclusively at Regal Cinemas South Beach. That same day, Lincoln opens nationwide in wide release. This year’s Oscar race has begun on a high note.